Sputtering Blackhawks welcome back Duncan Keith, Michal Rozsival

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Ideally, Joel Quenneville probably would ease Duncan Keith back into the lineup. Maybe throw him out there against a softer, more finesse-oriented team, and play him about 15 minutes or so. Do it in a game with a couple days off afterward, too, so Keith could have time to recuperate after playing his first game in nearly four weeks.

But there’s nothing ideal about the Blackhawks’ situation right now. So Keith will return Saturday against the punishing St. Louis Blues. And he’ll probably play a lot of minutes. And he’ll probably play again the next night at home against the Calgary Flames. The way Quenneville sees it, there’s no time to waste.

Through 16 games, and with the six-game circus trip looming next week, the Hawks are currently in sixth place in the Central Division, one point behind Winnipeg and nine points behind first-place Dallas. Asked where his concern level is after a deflating loss to the New Jersey Devils, Quenneville — who usually equivocates and downplays just about everything, good or bad — didn’t mince words.

“It’s high,” he said. “It’s early in the year, but at the same time, you look at our division, everybody picks up points on a nightly basis, and [when] you lose ground like you do last night, it’s tough to recapture. We know how tough it’s going to be down the road. It’s not going to get any easier.”

With 66 games left on the schedule, it’s obviously far too early to be panicked. But Quenneville’s concern is justified. The Hawks are being carried by one line — Artemi Panarin, Artem Anisimov and the red-hot Patrick Kane. Corey Crawford has had three poor outings in his last four games. And they’re a lousy 1-5-0 on the road, with seven of their next eight coming away from the United Center.

His concern was reflected in all the changes to the lineup made at Friday’s practice. Keith will play, as will Michal Rozsival, who hasn’t played since breaking his ankle in Game 4 of the second round of the playoffs. Marko Dano will be the latest player to get a crack on the top line alongside Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa. Teuvo Teravainen moved back to the left wing with Marcus Kruger and Andrew Shaw. And Ryan Garbutt re-entered the lineup, with Andrew Desjardins a likely scratch after his gaffe Thursday night led to New Jersey’s second goal.

Quenneville has been tinkering with the lineup all season. And he won’t stop until he sees what he wants. Last year, the Hawks were in a similar spot, with a similar record and similar inconsistency, and it all came together on the circus trip, when the line of Kris Versteeg, Brad Richards and Kane sparked the team.

“I think we’ve been pretty consistent to date, personally,” Quenneville said of the lines. “The other lines have been pretty consistent as far as who’s with who, and the makeup; a guy here or there [is different]. I’m not complaining, but I think that maybe we haven’t changed them enough. We’ve been pretty patient with them to this point without seeing much production and without too much adjusting.”

While Dano hopes to recapture the brief bit of magic he had with Toews and Hossa in the early days of training camp, the offense should get a huge boost with the return of Keith on the back end. Keith is the engine that drives the Hawks’ puck-possession game, and his presence could be the catalyst the Hawks need.

“He should enhance all situational plays — power play, penalty killing, 5-on-5, important minutes, first and last shifts of periods and games,” Quenneville said, ticking off a list of things that have troubled the Hawks. “A lot of times he’s a key factor in all those critical shifts. It’s a big void. Defensively, I didn’t think we were bad in that stretch [without him], but certainly his presence makes a big difference.” 

The last time the Hawks played the Blues, last Wednesday at the United Center, they jumped out to a 5-2 lead after just one period before squandering it and losing in overtime. But Quenneville said the Hawks don’t have to look that far back for added motivation Saturday night.

“We should be extra motivated after the way we lost the game [Thursday] night,” Quenneville said. “I’m still angry, I’m still upset about it.”

It’s early, yes. But it’s getting later. Sooner or later, the Hawks have to get their act together.

“We’ve got to pick up our game and start getting some points here,” Brent Seabrook said. “It’s a crucial part of the season. I know it’s early, but these points matter just as much as the ones at the end do.”

NOTE: To make room for Keith and Rozsival on the active roster, the Hawks sent Erik Gustafsson and Viktor Svedberg to Rockford.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus

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